Imogen Heap: “Tiny Human”. Total sales: $133.20

Excerpt from Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain by David Gerard. Join the mailing list for updates!

Others had already been thinking along blockchain lines. Imogen Heap has been recording through major labels for a couple of decades now, first with the duo Frou Frou and then as a solo singer, songwriter and producer. In the course of a string of chart hits and Grammy nominations, she’s experienced quite her share of duplicitous incompetence at the hands of the music industry, and wants something better.

In late 2015, Heap found herself free of previous deals, and so released her new song “Tiny Human” as the test case for Mycelia,1 running on the Ethereum blockchain. Her motivation was to cut through the tangle of bad deals and obscure rights the record industry offered. “Its success will come from the adoption of millions of music lovers.”2 Mycelia worked with Ujo Music, an attempt to automate the back-room disbursement side put together by Ethereum development company ConsenSys, whose Vinay Gupta had first told Heap about smart contracts.

Heap’s explicit goal is to have all music you’ve “bought” (not just hers) behave as marketing spyware that collects data on the user, in the manner of advertising trackers on web pages:3

We know less about what our songs get up to once they’ve left ‘home’. What would I like to read on these postcards from our songs? Well, how many times it was played, by who and where would be a great start.

The last Imogen Heap release with spyware was the 2005 Speak For Yourself CD with Sony’s rootkit malware – an initiative that didn’t go down so well then either.

The press coverage of Heap’s new initiative was vast, and her name is still routinely brought up whenever blockchaining the music industry is mentioned. What I’ve yet to see anyone mention is how well it did in practice. Total sales of “Tiny Human” through Ujo Music on the Ethereum blockchain were … $133.20. Not $133,200 – but one hundred and thirty-three dollars and twenty cents: 222 sales at 60 cents each.4 It literally got more press articles than sales. It was taken off sale some time in 2016.5

It didn’t help that buying it was almost impossible even for a blockchain advocate,6 let alone an ordinary human music fan. You went to the page, clicked “Download”, followed the instructions to create an Ethereum wallet, and went off to a Bitcoin exchange to buy bitcoins then exchange those for ether, as ETH wasn’t widely traded directly to dollars at the time. Getting hold of the bitcoins required you either to send your money and a pile of government identification to an unregulated exchange – the recommended exchange, ShapeShift, had literally left New York state to avoid anti-money-laundering regulations7 – deal with crooks or both. Once you’d done all this, you got a download key. The process was ridiculously glitchy and buggy. “The exact ether amount is a bit of a gamble.”8

Ujo Music later posted a rambling nonexcuse for the “Tiny Human” disaster, in which they admitted that they’d only researched what the hell they were doing after they’d done it. “We are but a few bright-eyed technologists with a special hammer, looking for the right nail.”9

You’d think that at that point Heap would be wishing she’d just put it up on Bandcamp, but she’s still pursuing the blockchain dream and selling others on it, particularly the Featured Artists Coalition, i.e., the stars who did quite well out of the old major label system and would like to keep something that works like that did. Never give up!

A record shop must not be harder to use than BitTorrent. The legal options, iTunes, Netflix and Spotify made it big by being more convenient than piracy, and there is nothing convenient about dealing with blockchains. For buying music online, Bandcamp has all comers beat for a convenient record shop experience that delights both buyers and sellers,10 pays 85% to the artist and doesn’t have any use for a blockchain.

1 There’s a famous saying concerning mushrooms and distributing information.

3 Imogen Heap. “What Blockchain Can Do for the Music Industry”. Demos Quarterly #8, Spring 2016. I’ve also had reports of discussions with the people behind the “Tiny Human” initiative, and a musical ecosystem pervaded with the functionality I describe as “spyware” is absolutely the intention. (Also, they dislike Bandcamp.)

4 Screenshot of payouts as of August 2016, uploaded by me 6 November 2016.

5 Screenshot of the Ujo Music purchase page for “Tiny Human” when I clicked “Download” in August 2016.

6 e.g., Hatching Amazing. “Part 1: How we tried to buy Imogen Heap’s song on Ethereum”. 24 January 2016.

7 Everett Rosenfield. “Company leaves New York, protesting ‘BitLicense’”. CNBC, 11 June 2015.

9 “Emerging from the Silence”. Ujo Music blog, 29 August 2016.

10 Ben Ratliff. “Is Bandcamp the Holy Grail of Online Record Stores?” New York Times, 19 August 2016.